In the Marché aux Pouces in Paris a few weeks ago, I picked up a small collection of postcards from the Great War. To the merchant's surprise, I didn't care as much about the pictures as the messages, some in cramped letters to pack in lots of detail, some more sprawling and repetitive, to and from a young soldier writing from different military addresses and his anxious wife and daughter and an aunt, more anxious about her own health and the hardships of scarcities than about the dangers at the front. And I started imagining the story of the things they left unsaid. And as it happened, I had with me this book by the very young Raymond Radiguet, about an adventure in civilian life but also involving a soldier, in just this period.
It was really an accident that I had picked up this book before the trip. I was simply looking for something in French to read for practice and for vocabulary. But I didn't recognize the name of the author and didn't remember ever hearing the title before. According to Wikipedia, Radiguet was only 17 when he wrote it, and 20 when he got it published, the same year he died of typhus—1923. In his short life he managed to write another novel, Le bal du Comte d'Orgel, which Wiki says also deals with adultery, a play and some volumes of poetry. And to become briefly a playmate and tease of 30-something Jean Cocteau. The book is worth reading just for the scandal it caused, and as another glimpse of that brilliant and tumultuous post-war period in Paris, where Radiguet was the boy wonder.
But it's also worth reading for another reason. It is an awful, painful and true-sounding portrait of adolescent hormonal rage and egotism unchecked. It's about a schoolboy, only "12 years and a few months old" when the war begins (just a year older than Radiguet himself), whose awkward crush on a slightly older girl blossoms into a dangerous and adulterous career that is ultimately fatal to the girl. After their first awkward glimpses of one another, the girl and boy are separated (their parents live in different places), and by the time the narrator sees Marthe again, he is 15 and she has married a young man who has been mobilized and is off at the battlefront. After playful and progressively audacious flirtation, they become lovers—their rendezvous and his sleepovers complicated by his shyness and the fact that he doesn't want his parents and the neighbors to know what he is up to. Except that he really does want them to know, because having a mistress would make them deal with him as a grown man. Except that he is not a grown man and has no idea of, and no willingness to accept, the responsibility of the relationship. Oddly, Marthe, though older and more experienced—she's a married woman, after all—lets him dominate her and seems eager to have a master, even as incompetent and confused a master as this 15 and then 16-year old boy.
There is a built-in tension in the structure of the novel, because we know that summer (when her parents are away) will not last forever, nor will the war, that Jacques, the soldier husband, will be returning and that this whole relationship is utterly unsustainalbe. And meanwhile all the neighbor's and the milkman and the letter-carrier are watching the boy's nocturnal visits to the young army wife, and her parents and/or her parents-in-law are sure to find out, probably soon. The boy, as narrator, describes all his own hesitations, bursts of bombast and other stupid mistakes, and frequently admits his cowardice—his unwillingness to accept responsibility or even the discomfort that an open break with his parents and community norms would entail. He thinks he is madly in love, but it is not a love concerned about the welfare of Marthe but one demanding that she constantly demonstrate her passion for him. He is just an awful cad, and the only excuse is his extreme youth.
There are cutting observations not just of his own conduct, but also of the ridiculous hypocrisies of the neighbors and the moral doubts of his parents, her parents and everybody. The story is probably not strictly autobiographical, but the adolescent confusions, narcissism and naked lust ring true.
Raymond Radiguet - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia